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EXCLUSIVE: Joel Cummins Talks Umphrey’s/Biscuits Prank War And Post-World Series Hang With The Cubs

Joel Cummins is a founding member and keyboard player for Umphrey’s McGee. Before Joel hits the road with Umphrey’s later in the fall, the keys player will perform a number of non-Umphrey’s shows, including two sets at the upcoming Brooklyn Comes Alive, set to take place on September 23rd and 24th.

We had the chance to catch up with Cummins ahead of his two Brooklyn Comes Alive performances on Sunday, September 24th. The keyboard wizard will perform a special brunch solo piano set (as he’s done in the past on Jam Cruise) and then follow it up with a supergroup set with The Disco Biscuits’ Marc Brownstein and Aron Magner, Lotus drummer Mike Greenfield, and Motet guitarist Ryan Jalbert. We got the opportunity to talk to Joel about what he’s looking forward to at Brooklyn Comes Alive, plus responded to Magner’s statements on the friendly Disco Biscuits/Umphrey’s prank war and shared about his experiences hanging out with The Cubs after they won the World Series. Check it out below!

Gary Mellini is a music lover in Denver by way of Chicago and is one of the creative forces behind the Noise Behind The Sound Podcast and events like J2G Live’s Dance Party Time Machine concerts.


GM: Hey Joel, thanks for taking some time to talk today. How’s the time off the road with Umphrey’s McGee been treating you?

Joel Cummins: Well, it’s only been a couple days off the road, so I’m just getting into it. I did get to go back to Chicago over the weekend and got to check out Ween and Primus at the North Coast Fest on Sunday, which was really fun. It’s nice to be the person being entertained as opposed to being the entertainer sometimes. But yeah, I’m working on a few solo piano sets coming up, so I’ve started getting ready for those. I’ve got one back in Chicago next weekend at The Tonic Room and one as part of the brunch thing at Brooklyn Comes Alive. John Cleary is doing one day and I’m doing the other, so excited for that stuff.

GM: I’m glad you brought those up because I wanted to discuss the solo gigs you’ve been doing. Obviously, those gigs have to be a different experience than when you play with Umphrey’s or your other side projects. What’s the biggest thing you get out of playing those types of gigs?

Joel Cummins: For me, it’s a different opportunity to really focus on just playing well by myself. I think there is a little more pressure that kind of comes with it. When I’m up on stage with Umphrey’s, there are five other guys up there. If I do something that is unexpected or make a mistake, more than likely, the other five guys are going to pick me up or cover it up, you know? [laughs] So there is a little extra preparation required because you are out there on your own. It’s really nice because when I do solo piano stuff, I do a mix of classical stuff, some jazz, some Umphrey’s tunes, some covers that I’m saving—there is a whole different spectrum with it. It’s good for me to get out there and see what I can do. Obviously, the other big thing is that when I am up on stage with Umphrey’s, there are five other guys playing music, so I typically have to do a whole lot more to fill up the space when I am playing by myself, and I like the challenge.

GM: The other thing you’ll be doing at Brooklyn Comes alive is playing with Marc Brownstein, Aron Magner, Mike Greenfield, and Ryan Jalbert on Sunday, September 24th. When I interviewed Magner about the gig, we couldn’t really think of another time the two of you have worked together officially on a project like this. Obviously, you guys have both sat in with each other for various different projects, but is this the first time you guys will actually be collaborating on a project like this in an official capacity?

JC: I think so. We’ve just done a lot of sitting in with each other over the years and having fun with it that way. I’ve played with Brownie in a couple of Everyone Orchestras, but it will be nice to turn the tables and have the two keyboardists out numbering the one guitar player on this for once. [laughs]

GM: I was going to ask about that. Are you looking forward to ganging up on the guitar player for a change?

Joel Cummins: [laughs] Always. Honestly though, I really enjoy playing with other keyboardists. I was in Digital Tape Machine with Joe Hettinga, who is an outstanding player, for a number of years, so I do have some experience with playing with an additional keyboardist. I think it really opens things up sonically with what we can do. Everyone playing in this group is such a good listener, so it should come together nicely.

GM: Have you guys started kicking around ideas as to what things might sound like or some song choices?

Joel Cummins: Yeah, we have. We just got that process started and are going through some ideas and flushing some things out at the moment. I’m sure we’ll have some fun songs that we will do, then keep some of the parts of the show looser, since everyone is a pretty experienced improv player too.

GM: So Umphrey’s McGee and the Disco Biscuits have had a long-standing, good-natured, and friendly rivalry going for a while now. You’ve had a lot of fun with each other over the years. Most recently, you guys had some pretty funny All Access Passes made for your summer tour with a picture of Barber sleeping backstage at one of your shows. When I spoke with Magner about them, he said “shots fired” and “there will be revenge.” Do you care to comment at all on the latest iteration of the Umphrey’s versus Biscuits prank war or would you rather let sleeping Barbers lie?

Joel Cummins: [laughs] I’d be happy to comment. It’s kind of funny because the Biscuits guys—I think it was back in 2006—during a tribute to a friend of mine that had passed away, thought it would be funny to lower a dildo from the top of the stage, and you know, I don’t think there will ever be any payback that will make that even. [laughs] But I do find it interesting that they are perturbed about something that wasn’t even a public thing or something the band did. It was done by our crew guys.

I think the best advice to learn from this is simply if you are going to go to someone else’s show as a guest, it’s probably not a good idea to pass out backstage during the show. Maybe they should be more upset with Barber as opposed to us. [laughs] As far as I know, one of our crew guys was just worried about this guy that was passed out backstage. One question I would have for Barber is was it the music, the tempos? What was it that had him so bored he decided he needed to go to sleep backstage? [laughs]

GM: Well Barber is a wild card, and when an urge strikes him he usually obliges, so I would bet it was just time for a nap.

Joel Cummins: For sure. [laughs]

GM: All joking aside, I have always found it cool to watch the relationship between your two bands over the years. It must have been nice to have another band you get along with so well coming up at the same time to motivate and inspire you guys, or even to look at and say maybe we should or shouldn’t do it that way.

Joel Cummins: One really funny thing is that I applied to Penn, and that was the only place I got rejected, so The Disco Biscuits could have been a two keyboard band. I think over the years we’ve got a lot of things in common and have had a friendly rivalry going, but now more than anything, it really feels like family. It’s great to hang when we are at festivals together, and it’s just gotten better and better over the years. It’s always good to have someone who can push you and motivate you, and hopefully, we do that for each other.

The Disco Biscuits’ Aron Magner Talks Prank War With Umphrey’s, Spotify, And BCA

One thing that always stays the same is trying to come up with ways to have fun with each other. Like at Langerado one year, we had Barber come and sit in with us, and he and Brendan [Bayliss] staged a fight on stage. In Aron [Magner]’s interview, he referenced the time when I came to sit in with Conspirator. For the record, I’d like to share the real story. [laughs] That was their idea for me to come up on stage from the crowd, and the funny part is, I went down to the crowd about fifteen minutes before I was supposed to go up there, and I couldn’t get anyone’s attention. Nobody in the band was making any kind of eye contact with anyone in the crowd. [laughs]. I told them after the gig, “Guys, this is a problem, you need to interact with the crowd a little more.” [laughs] I’m down there jumping around trying to get their attention, and of course when it’s time for the sit-in they are looking for me side stage, like “Where is Joel?” God bless the security guys because they could have ripped me to shreds but were very gentle. [laughs]

GM: That’s hilarious. So last thing before I let you go. Last time we spoke, it was last June and the Cubs were in the midst of a historic and miraculous run to their first World Series Championship in 108 years. I heard you got to go to Game 7. What was that experience like?

Joel Cummins: First of all, I have to give a shout out to my buddy Jason Morris who is the Cleveland Indians fan who got me a ticket. So I went to the game with an Indians fan. It was really fun and obviously, it was such a back and forth game. There were moments where I thought we had it and others where it felt like, “Oh no, we are going to blow it again.” It was simply the most incredible sports experience ever. One of the things I kept thinking was that whoever decided that the World Series should be a 7 game series, this is exactly what they were hoping for. Every pitch had the whole stadium on the edge of their seats. I don’t think there will ever be a more frenzied and intense game 7 ever.

Unfortunately, my dad passed away last year. When we first sang the anthem at Wrigley in ’06, the Cubs gave us all uniforms with our names on them. I gave mine to my dad, and he wore it to countless cubs games and Umphrey’s shows. One thing that was really cool was that before the game, I swung by my mom’s place, grabbed the jersey, and wore it to the game. It had a couple mustard stains on there from a dog or a brat, which just made it perfect. I got to watch the Cubs win the World Series in my dad’s jersey, which made it even more special.

GM: I’ve seriously got goosebumps just thinking about that game right now.

Joel Cummins: For sure. What was also really cool is that I was flying back into Chicago for a recording session with Umphrey’s and was in town for the parade. They had asked Brendan to play a private party for the players and their families. After a bunch of crazy flight cancellations and delays, I got there right at the end of this party and ended up going to Ryan Dempster’s party after that and got to hang out with the players throw back a few drinks with those guys. So I get there and am talking to one of Kyle Schwarber’s friends from high school and asked if he could introduce me. The guy turns and yells, “Hey Kyle, come take a picture with this guy!” I was like, “Whoa no no no no [laughs]. I just want to shake your hand and thank you for everything you’ve done.” He was really cool and I got to tell him about my dad and how I saw the only game he played in before he got hurt that year and thank you. We talked for awhile about how insanely hard he had to work to get back for the World Series and how impressive it was. At this point, I wanted to let him go and he’s like, “Soooooo, you don’t want a picture?” [laughs] and basically forced me to take a selfie with him. It was awesome and just an amazing way to cap that all off.

GM: Wow, that is like every Cubs fan’s dream right there. So our magic number is 20 and it seems like we are starting to hit our stride. How do you like our chances this year?

Joel Cummins: I get the MLB package every year, so I watch a ton of games. Pretty much, you just gotta get into the playoffs and get hot and you never know. Fortunately, the NL Central has been a little weak this year, but we’ve gotten hot recently. We’ve got Contreras and Lester coming back, and if we can stay healthy, I think we should be in good shape and should make the playoffs. That’s all you can really ask for.

GM: Absolutely. I’m gearing up for another stressful fall. I am pretty sure I cried more last October than I have in the rest of my entire life combined.

Joel Cummins: [laughs] I hear you.

GM: Well, thanks again for taking some time to talk today. Looking forward to hearing you at Brooklyn Comes Alive and Go Cubbies!

Joel Cummins: Hell yeah man. Go Cubs!

[Photo: Phierce Photo]


Inspired by the vibrant musical communities of Brooklyn and New Orleans, Brooklyn Comes Alive is set to take place across three venues in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (Brooklyn BowlSchimanskiMusic Hall of Williamsburg) on September 23rd and 24th. The unique homegrown event puts the focus on the musicians, curating dream team collaborations, tributes, and artist passion projects for two full days of incredible music both new and old.

The 2017 lineup is set to include hand-selected band lineups featuring all-star musicians like John Scofield, George Porter Jr. (The Meters), Vinnie Amico and Al Schnier (moe.), Bernard PurdieJoel Cummins, Ryan Stasik, and Kris Myers (Umphrey’s McGee), Aron Magner and Marc Brownstein (The Disco Biscuits), Mike Greenfield and Jesse Miller (Lotus), Jason Hann (String Cheese Incident), Alan Evans (Soulive), Cyril Neville (Neville Brothers), Henry Butler, Jon Cleary, Reed Mathis (Electric Beethoven), Michael League, Nate Werth, Chris Bullock, Robert “Sput” Searight, and Bob Lanzetti (Snarky Puppy), Jennifer Hartswick and Natalie Cressman (Trey Anastasio Band), and scores of others!

***Tickets Are On Sale Now!***

Brooklyn Comes Alive is now offering single day tickets, as well as a ticket payment plan for as low as $30/month. When checking out, just select “Monthly payments with Affirm” as your payment method. To find out more about ticketing, VIP options, and lodging, head to the festival website.